Saturday 29 December 2018

Social science nostalgia - David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd

From time to time it pays to go back to your (scientific) roots and re-read a classic. The first book I read when studying sociology was David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd and, recently, I have been lucky to obtain a 1955 abridged edition on a second hand online bookstore. To make things perfect, the book is in pristine condition and comes with the previous owner's name on the front matter with the date and location of its original purchase: New York 1955. Such are the travels of books.

Where only the brave may go. David Riesman in 1953.
Copyright: Getty images

Riesman put forward a fascinating social character study of American society over time. His account falls somewhere in between mentalite and longue duree sociology of social conduct and, in a way, his narrative can only be called prescient. His main thesis is that there are different types of characters generated by the different societies people live in. He starts with the question: why do societies get the type of social behaviour that they need to survive?

It is a curious starting point, and consequently, he needs to say something about the type of society he wants his social characters to fit into. He distinguishes three ideal types (the work has echoes of Weber's work) of societies, traditional, inner-directional and outer-directional. Accordingly, there are three modes of social behaviour: traditional, inner- and outer-directed characters.

In traditional societies, people live by norms and standards that are set and rarely questioned. They extend to all life domains and pervade all aspects of social behaviour. Traditional standards do not need to be logical, and obedience to them is policed and enforced through power relations. Any theory of social behaviour somehow has to deal with instances of divergence from norms or non-conformity and Riesman thinks that deviance is 'accommodated' through institutionalised roles where some sort of (abberant) individuality can be lived yet within strictly defined limits, such as the medicine man in tribal societies.

Inner-directed societies are different to traditional societies in that they accomplish conformity, and thus stability of social relations, through the internalisation of norms and values. Riesman thinks that internalised sets of goals, learned throughout childhood and reinforced throughout adulthood by religous, social and political institutions, are mainly responsible for social peace in those societies.

The third type of society is the most intriguing as Riesman observes a shift from inner-direction to outward direction of norms and standards of behaviour. People, so he argues, become increasingly sensitised to the preferences and inclinations of others and take those to be the guiding principles of their own conduct. As the inner-directed type of character was epitomised by the Renaissance and the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, Riesman believes modern (American) man to exemplify perfectly the outer-directed person. Today, he believes, we want to be and aim to behave in the way we see it done by others. As he puts it

'What is common to all the other-directed people is that their contemporaries are the source of direction for the individual... The goals toward which the other-directed person strives shift with that guidance [from others]: it is only the process of striving itself and the process of paying close attention to the signals from others that remain unaltered throughout life.' (p37).

Note that this was written in 1950, well before the invention of Instagram. However, apart from the striking resonances with our lives lived through (and by) social media, Riesman does something else very remarkable. His theory is what Robert K. Merton would have called an 'all-embracing, unified theory' and he was highly critical of it. Riesman is a system builder as Marx and Hegel were before him in the philosophical realm and Merton has little time for them. He notes that

'a total system of sociological theory, in which observations about every aspect of social behaviour, organistion, and change promptly find their preordained place, has the same exhilirating challenge and the same small promise as those ... philosophical systems which have fallen into deserved disuse.' (Robert K. Merton, On Theoretical Sociology, New York: Free Press, 1967. p.45)

Merton's key criticism is that any all-encompassing theory of social behaviour requires a functionalist explanatory framework which allows all phenomena of social life to fit into the larger theory, something that is achieved only through disregard of much that goes on in life, or through abstraction from much of life's detail. In both cases, observations are made to fit the larger theory by neglecting much else. Consequently, large scale theories are either so general that they say little at all (ultimately failing Popper's test of fasifiability or verifiability), or can only be said to be valid by ignoring much of reality.

Yet, Riesman's book is still instructive. It is an unabashed attempt to formulate a working interpretation of social behaviour and societal structures. Remember his original question: how do societies generate the behaviour they need to continue to exist? Riesman's quest strikes us as inadmissively functionalist today. Martin Hollis called this type of functionalist or system thinking 'mystical' where societies as purposive systems 'exert pressure' on its parts, the individuals (Martin Hollis, The Philosophy of Social Sciences, Cambridge: CUP, 1994, p.106).

Yet, Riesman's book is a reminder of what sociological theory once thought possible and to which lengths it went to shape long duree narratives of social behaviour and its relationship with social structures. It was a bold attempt at designing a plausible structure-agency model for social conduct, its audacity acknowledged in 1954 by Time magazine when Riesman graced its cover.

And it is still a great read.

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